This desire to marry is a basic and primal instinct in women,” noted the late, great Nora Ephron. “This is followed by another basic and primal instinct: the desire to be single again.” Relationship wisdom is full of such emphatic generalizations, but according to that ever-reliable media source “a recent study,” it appears that women fall in love more than men.
A behavioral economist, Saurabh Bhargava of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, published a new study in Psychological Science, the leading journal in the field, which has a number of striking findings. The first is that women have feelings of love almost twice as often as men. The second is that over the course of a long relationship, women on average experience a much steeper decline in this feeling compared to their male partners.
While men showed a 9.2% decrease in their romantic feelings toward their spouses, women experienced a 55.2% drop. A similar effect is seen in the area of passion, where marriage leads to a 55.3% decrease in women’s desire for their partners, and a much smaller decline in men’s ardor.
Camilla Nicholls, a couples counsellor, says the findings don’t match her professional experience: “The significant gender gap suggested by the research doesn’t really register in the consulting room.”
Still, while there’s something a little uncomfortable about applying statistical analysis to the notoriously elusive concept of love, these numbers can at least give pause to rethink some of the familiar tropes and clichés about marriage.
Popular culture tends to focus on the image of the middle-aged man seeking the ego gratification of a younger woman as a fundamental cause of marital breakdown. And while there is no denying that particular phenomenon, it may be that the less obvious issue of gradual female disappointment with men is a more common cause of marriages ending.
Joanna Harrison is a former divorce attorney who, after deciding she wanted to help relationships before they broke up, became a couples counselor. She is also the author of Five arguments that all couples (should) havewhich bears the imperishable subtitle: and why the dishes matter.
“It’s women who file for divorce more often,” she notes, adding that there is no way to determine exactly what that means – except that it shows a noticeable lack of passivity.
And, while there are all sorts of exceptions, there are nonetheless some broad trends she’s seen.
“Women more often express frustration about communication and the division of labor,” she says. “And men are more often concerned about a sexual relationship and want less frustration from their partner.”
Interestingly, as the subtitle of her book suggests, although it may appear that (many) men and women want different things, there is in fact a causal relationship between these diverse desires. Harrison points to “a brilliant” study, published in the journal Archives of sexual behavior, titled: “Gender inequalities in domestic labor predict lower sexual desire in women who cohabit Men.” The study, by Harris, Gormezano and Anders, claims it “shows that gender disparities are important, though understudied, contributors to low desire in women partnering with men”. As you’d expect, it’s couched in forbidding academic language, but one takeaway, in crude terms, is that if men want to see more action in the bedroom, they should think about being more active in the kitchen.
Although gender roles no longer conform to rigid stereotypes, it is fair to say that a majority of men are not as active at home as they would like to believe. Data in the Bhargava study shows that men have a tendency to relax and “sleep” after work, which, moving into the domain of speculation for now, may not be popular with many women.
Since humans are blessed and cursed with a relative, rather than absolute, perspective, it matters far less that technical innovation has radically reduced the amount of time we spend on household chores than how that reduced time is divided between a couple. There are few. things more emotionally corrosive than the slow build-up of resentment over the routine avoidance of menial tasks.
There is also often an inherited frustration in the bargain, with many women often keenly aware that they do not want to fall into the default domestic position they have seen their mothers occupy. “We all have the models of our parents within us,” says Harrison.
Beyond household work, however, the real crucible of marriage inequality is child care. It is not only the work involved in nurturing and raising children, and how often it is overlooked or underestimated, but also how children reshape their parents’ relationship with each other.
Bhargava found that men, unlike women, are much less likely to feel affection towards their partners when they are in the company of their children. Harrison says that in her experience, the complaint that a spouse has become more distant and focused on the child since becoming a parent is much less voiced by women than by men.
Another compounding factor is aging parents – a responsibility that women often find at their feet. But Harrison has some constructive advice on the subject of love on the slide.
“Where loving feelings are waning in one or both people, it’s important to try to understand what each other is about rather than letting resentment build up, because that’s what really breaks down long-term relationships.”
She says that such understanding is a two-way process in which both partners need to feel that they can describe their feelings in a way that does not make the other defensive, but also to be able to listen to experiences that may be difficult to hear. . Since this can be challenging at the best of times, let alone when a marriage is in crisis, “a couples therapist,” she adds, “can be helpful.”
Another reason it can be difficult to talk about micro-grievances and huge resentments is that in many ways they are the hidden and unsexy story of marriage, the uncelebrated one that is not part of public culture. Since incremental loss of love is rarely the stuff of high drama, fiction tends to deal in passionate affairs and fiery rows instead. Movies are good for fiery starts and toxic break-ups, but the everyday process of developing a thousand little grudges usually goes undocumented.
So while we can see the progressive embitterment of Kay Corleone The godfatherit’s because her husband kills people, not because he neglects the dishes.
One notable exception is Richard Linklater’s Previously trilogy, spanning two decades in the lives of Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke), from meeting as strangers on a European train to a showdown, as middle-aged parents, on a Greek holiday. There is a moving scene in the final film, Before midnight, in which Celine says after an argument: “Do you know what’s going on here? It’s simple: I don’t think I love you anymore.”
The reason it feels authentic and quietly devastating is because there’s a sense of this declaration that stems from a history of compromise and dashed dreams—the kind that most marriages encounter—rather than from a single unforgivable incident.
But it’s not all bad news on the marriage front. A loving equanimity of a kind is often achieved. If women are more likely to start with a romantic view of a relationship’s potential, the experience of living with their male partners appears to be a highly effective way to lower their expectations.
If that often means falling somewhat out of love, Bhargava’s study seems to suggest that it can result in a form of romantic equality with men that might not have felt quite so dreamy in the first place.
In the end, love can be another word for acceptance.